Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Baalei Teshuva - a reality check

LazerA (guest post) - a comment to "Killing with self-righteous criticism - Tznius & p...":
mekubal said... "I am left to wonder why the FFB world feels the need to so often blame the ills of Chareidi society on the BT. ... It is attitudes like this that leave me astounded that the BT movement rolls on as well as it does.
"Obviously, there are many different kinds of people who become frum for many different reasons. Baalei teshuva are people who, assuming they were well-adjusted individuals to begin with, have chosen to uproot their lives for the sake of Hashem. As such, they are, broadly speaking, a very positive influence in the frum world. At the same time, this not mean that they arrive without any negative baggage, and this reality should be recognized by both the baalei teshuva themselves and the broader community. There clearly are problems that are more common among baalei teshuva than the general community. This, of course, does not justify any kind of broad discriminatory attitudes or practices. We should treat people as individuals, not as members of a category.
mekubal said further... It also leaves me to think that those involved in kiruv are heinous criminals. They are cons selling an illusion. For if we are honest with the potential BT ... then I doubt that so many would be sold on the program...
As a child of parents from non-religious backgrounds, and a person who has worked "professionally" in kiruv, I have to disagree with this assessment.

First of all, while there certainly is discrimination against baalei teshuva (and their children) it simply isn't as bad as mekubal is describing. Under normal circumstances, the children of baalei teshuva are accepted in frum schools, though perhaps not always the exact school that the parents desired (this happens to many frum parents as well). Baalei teshuva can have difficulty getting married (as do any number of frum singles as well) for a wide range of issues. Honestly, in many cases they are best off marrying other baalei teshuva. Their children may have some difficulty, but unless they fall into the common trap of seeking a "prestige" shidduch, they will almost always find a fine frum young man or woman to marry. (Frankly, those families that are most likely to have a strong bias against baalei teshuva are, in any event, very unlikely to provide an appropriate shidduch for a baal teshuva or his children.)

Secondly, the idea that sincere baalei teshuva would not have accepted the truth of the Torah and their obligation to follow the mitzvos if they had been aware of the social difficulties that they would face in the frum community shows a deep disregard for the sincerity and sacrifices that baalei teshuva are making. These are serious people! They aren't "joining" because they like the social scene; they are "returning" to Hashem because they are convinced that this is their moral duty.

Finally, I can't speak for other kiruv "professionals", but when I have worked with families in the process of becoming observant, I have always been careful to be sure that they went into religious observance with their eyes open, aware of the various social issues they would face. My concern was to properly prepare them for the difficulties they would face and to advise them on steps they can take to mitigate, to some degree, some of these difficulties.
Michoel said... "Baalei T'shuvah tend to ... timidity and lack of independent thought and action.
"People who choose to move away from the societal norm and become religious Jews are clearly capable of independent thought and action. At the same time, baalei teshuva are late-comers to Judaism and, by necessity, need to receive a greater degree of guidance than a person who was raised in a frum household and received a Torah education from childhood (at least initially). This does not indicate an inherent tendency towards timidity or lack of independence.


  1. look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    Martin Luther King

    Joel Rich

  2. So true.
    Accept my vote of protest for those who malign and accuse BT's.

  3. People who choose to move away from the societal norm and become religious Jews are clearly capable of independent thought and actionAs a baal teshuva myself, I completely disagree with this.

    Most of what LazerA's talking about is impressionistic sociology which I haven't studied. I've met quite a few FFBs with emotional/intellectual baggage, but I couldn't tell you if that's more or less common than BTs without seeing more of the frum world (I've only lived in NYC for 6 months, and then in Washington Heights).

    But on this issue I do have a strong impression and my impression is that chareidi baalei teshuva believe -- however they came to that belief -- that True Orthodox Judaism is correct and they are taught that rabbis who follow Daas Torah tell them what is the proper way to live life (i.e. the popular metaphor comparing rabbis to doctors and gedolim to expert doctors) and at that point these BTs give up on independent thought. Or, as they used to tell us in yeshiva: "Sometimes your brain needs a good washing."

    What I write here is a bit Off-Topic, but this post got me thinking about it:
    I had the opportunity this past Yom Tov to meet a fellow baal teshuva, extraodinarily nice fellow with excellent middos (happens to be a former druggy), who belives that autistics have prophecy which they express through Facilitated Communication and also believes in 9-11 Troofy Troof. He told me a story from his rabbi, Rabbi Mizrachi (the Rabbi Mizrachi addressed here: http://wolfishmusings.blogspot.com/2008/11/im-convinced-torah-proofs-cause-more.html ), that an autistic accurately told him about an issue Rebbetzin Mizrachi was having that nobody knew about. When I told him I simply didn't believe the story's details in their entirety (the nicest and still plausible interpretation would be that Rabbi Mizrachi was misled by a leading question), he told me I was "being a cynic." He's the 2nd frum yid who has expressed belief in 9-11 Troofy Troof to me; the first such fellow -- he's only 16 years old, so there is hope for him -- happens to believe that less than 1 million yidden died in the Holocaust, Rachmana Litzlan, and listens to mp3s from Rabbi Weiss of Neturei Karta; this boy is in yeshiva near me and is a talmid of a rabbi I'm friendly with, but he still espouses this type of shtus...

    If these guys (and J-bloggers/commenters like Jewish Philosopher and JImmy and other such people) can be made to feel cozy and comfortable, unconfronted by people who think critically but what I write publicly about R' Elias or what R' Slifkin writes about science (not to imply I have anywhere near his Torah knowledge) is seen as extreme, then I think there is room for them but no room for us. Our society is to be found elsewhere.

  4. As a BT and someone that has worked with other BTs, I still strongly believe that many BTs become timid, hesitant, and self-doubting. Rav Bulman discussed this very explicitly although I don't have a reference handy. People are full of contradictions and certainly Jewish people. A kannoi and boldly protest on one hand, and be fearful of rebuke on the other. Baalei t'shuvah are often very self-conscious about proper havara, proper dress and many other things. This is too self-evident to need rayos.

  5. I would suspect that while these characterizations are true, they are only a temporary early stage in a stable BT's gradual development and adjustment towards integration.

    I suggest that those who get stuck in this self-doubting stage on a long-term basis have more serious social/emotional issues which existed before, and unfortunately, becoming a BT inevitably exacerbates.

  6. These are serious people! They aren't "joining" because they like the social scene; they are "returning" to Hashem because they are convinced that this is their moral duty.

    As a sociology major, I gladly contest this statement.
    Human behavior, even as it is related to religion, is motivated by a composite of factors. This is an axiom relevant to the BT, the FFB, the Chossid, Litvack, Meshichist or the Brisker - you name it.
    Let me ask you this: The Charedi Jew who beats his wife is Chareidi because he
    (a) truly beleives that Torah Judaism is best complemented by the Hashkofos espoused by Chareidim
    (b) was only ever educated by those affiliated with the Chareidi movement
    (c) lives in Beit Shemesh, where not only his immediate family reside, but also his and his wife's respective 10 siblings, parents, and Tante Rochele
    (d) likes Cholent
    (e) feels that the Charedi community will best facilitate his abusive tendencies

    It is silly to say that only one of the former reasons can comprehensively explain the abuser's actions. Answers A-E must all be taken into account. On this, I am confident that all those who posted on this blog would agree.

    The paradigm which I have presented is no less true for any Ba'al teshuva. To assert that a BT's becoming frum is utterly a product of their moral conviction is somewhat a departure from the truth. The social structure that the frum world provides seems like a bed of roses to anyone jaded, disenchanted, and disconcerted with what the world at large has to offer. I challenege you as such: ask any seminary girl/yeshiva bochur in a "BT" institution to describe what they hope to accomplish post-marriage and children. Those who give you a lecture about passing down our traditions from generation to generation are prudent shmoozers. An honest man or woman will tell you that they look forward to a family and communal life where they (typically) won't have to worry about their kids taking drugs and going to Zimbabwe to socialize otherwise carefree African children. And though they might not say it excpilictly- the sem/yeshiva student will express a longing to be just like the Goldsteins and Horowitzes and Shmelbergers, to go to the sheitel macher for the monthly apt., and to walk home from shul on the streets of Lakewood or Sanhedria or Monsey on Shabbos afternoon draped in a Talis, awaiting mommy's challa. Here, the moral conviction does not resonate as it does where Torah Judaism is a novel excitement: What echoes is the innate need to attain and maintain social normalcy and acceptance, whatever the heck that means.....
    So, that BT's are faced with issues of social acceptance and inability to fit it and/or keep up with the Jonesnovich's is no surprise. Their social pursuits are met with equally socially related challenges. Its as simple as that - the problems mentioned in the article have nothing to do with baggage or whose fault it is that Shprintzee didn't get into Beis Yaakov of Aidele Meidels.
    To complain about how those who are motivated simply by morality are mistreated by the big bad judgemental FFBs, is nothing short of erroneous.

    I close this posting with but one confident assertion: Jews always have something to complain about.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.